The blogging here has been very spotty recently, but I’m hoping to pick it up. Don’t tune out just yet!
I arrived in South Africa on Sunday, June 27, and have already watched two games: Argentina-Mexico and Holland-Slovakia. I will be now writing in more detail, but the first thing I must share is how wonderful the experience has been so far.
South Africa is a wonderfully beautiful country, beyond anything you’d expect. The people are some of the friendliest you’ll ever meet, and the organization of the World Cup has been truly excellent.
In 2006, I had a 36-hour layover in Germany which I used to watch the England-Portugal game in the quarter-final. When comparing the two experiences, it is unbelievable how much better organized things have been in South Africa. This should be kept in mind especially in light of all the hysteria that preceeded the World Cup about how South Africans will not be able to organize the World Cup.
In Germany, getting from Gelsenkirchen to the AufSchalke Arena involved an hour-long ride in a very over-crowded bus that was stuck in the traffic in awful heat. You then had to walk another half hour to get to the stadium. The return to Gelsenkirchen was even worse, taking forever and getting stuck in awful traffic. Getting from downtown Joburg to the stadium took 15 minutes in a train, riding with some very fun fans and making friends, followed by a five-minute walk. In Durban, it took less than 5 minutes in a fast modern train, followed by a 5-minute walk. On the way back from the stadia, dedicated bus lanes have a constant stream of fast-moving buses that take you downtown in virtually no time. There was hardly any traffic as tens of thousands of people flocked to and from a stadium. Getting to and from the stadium is always an awful chore in major football tournaments, and yet the South Africans have managed to turn it into an easy and fun part of the experience.
The stadia themselves have been amazing. Soccer City, with its 95,00 seats is one of the most awe-inspiring stadia you’ll ever find. The atmosphere is electric. I’ve not seen a better atmosphere in a large stadium except in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana, and perhaps in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul. Although that stadium really lacks spirit and warmth due to its very spread out design, that night it was turned into a cauldron of emotion by Liverpool fans (the greatest fan in the world, as Cruyff later described them.)
Durban’s Moses Mabhida stadium, on the other hand, is perhaps one of the most beautiful stadia in the world. It’s set against a backdrop of the wonderful greenery of Durban and the long beautiful sandy beaches, and fits in beautifully with the city, which is itself a gem. It is also named after one of the leaders of the struggle against apartheid, who was chairman of the South African Communist Party in the days when it was at the forefront of the ANC’s struggle against apartheid.
Picking up the tickets here has gone smoothly. In Germany, the organizers lost my ticket, and I had to run around the stadium for an hour and a half trying to get them to issue a replacement. They eventually did, but I missed kick-off in the process, and found someone sitting in my seat. The trains in South Africa have been running on time, the airports of Joburg and Durban were pleasant, well-organized and not crowded. In Germany I was stranded for three hours late at night in a small town’s train station in the godforsaken midsts of the Ruhr valley waiting for a train that seemed to never arrive.
I am not writing this to criticize German organization, or to say that it was incompetent. My experience in Germany was clearly not typical–surely there were many who enjoyed their trip. I am bringing this up to highlight how hard it is for everything to fall in place in such major events, and how impressive it is for South Africa to have managed to do all of this so seamlessly.
The Fanzone where FIFA were showing the England game was also very nice and well-organized. After the games, there is a wonderful atmosphere in the bars and streets of the towns. Fans get together to watch games, party, drink and make friends.
But the most wonderful thing about this country is the people here, and the wonderful World Cup atmosphere one finds everywhere. In my two days here, I’ve made dozens of friends from all over the world. The South Africans have been very helpful, welcoming and generous. Everywhere I go I get offered rides and help in every way imaginable. I feel flattered and honored to just be here. What a truly amazing people.
All in all, this has been a great trip so far. If you’re not here, you’re missing out on a lot. And if you’re going to take my word on one thing, it is this: Visit South Africa. You will be amazed!